Today we take a look at the Howland Island radio log through the eyes of two of history’s most accomplished and respected Earhart researchers, Paul Rafford Jr. and Dave Horner. The questions raised by the multiple discrepancies between the two sets of radio logs associated with the Earhart flight, the radio room of the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca and the one kept on Howland Island, are disturbing to say the least, and open doors to a wide range of justifiable speculation about what was really going on during those critical hours in the morning of July 2, 1937.
The following article appeared in the March 1998 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. Boldface and italic emphasis mine unless noted.
“The Cipriani/Howland Island Radio Log: Fact or Fiction?”
by Paul Rafford Jr., Jan. 25, 1998
In 1994, while looking for a friend’s address in the Radio Amateur Call Book, former Naval Officer and retired radio engineer John P. Riley suddenly caught sight of a familiar name, Yau Fai Lum. This had been the name of the radio operator on Howland Island during Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated flight. Could the Yau Fai Lum listed in the call book be the same one? — He was! And as a result, John’s discovery set in motion an exchange of correspondence with Lum that now challenges the credibility of the Coast Guard’s Earhart files.
Howland was one of the Pacific islands occupied by the United States during the 1930s using civilian personnel under contract to the Department of Interior. In addition to sustaining America’s claim to the islands, the “colonists“ collected weather information and radioed it to Honolulu. In order to keep expenses to a minimum, the Department used adventurous young amateur radio operators and their equipment to man the weather network, rather than professionals.
By chance, three of these radio operators were on Howland at the time Earhart was to arrive. Yau Fai Lum was the operator assigned to Howland, while Ah Kin Leong and Henry Lau were traveling aboard the Itasca, en route either to or from their assignments on Baker and Jarvis. They were sent ashore to help prepare for Earhart’s arrival. [Coast Guard] Radioman [2nd Class] Frank Cipriani, ashore from the Itasca, was assigned to operate the high frequency direction finder.
According to the Itasca’s report and radio logs, after the ship departed in search of Earhart, Cipriani, Leong, and Lau remained on the island with Lum. Under Cipriani’s direction, they would maintain a watch on her frequencies and use the direction finder to obtain bearings, if possible. Except during periods of battery charging, contact would be made with the Itasca every few hours.
Copies of the Howland radio log, allegedly kept by Cipriani and the Interior Department radio operators, can be found in the National Archives. The entries reflect bona fide activities that would be expected to occur, such as watch changes, battery charging periods, attempts at direction finding, and exchanges of communication with the Itasca. However, there is one obvious error. Items that we know happened on July 2 carried a July 3 dateline.
After locating Lum, Riley exchanged correspondence with him for several months. Although suffering from the infirmities of old age, Lum’s mind was clear and memory good. But, to Riley’s amazement, he completely denied having taken any part in keeping radio watches for Cipriani. In fact, Lum denied ever having met him.
When Riley pointed out his difficulty in believing that the two men could have lived together on Howland for two weeks without meeting, Lum emphatically declared that Cipriani had not been on the island during that period. But he did not deny that Cipriani could have been on the island for brief periods before Earhart’s disappearance. He pointed out that any work Cipriani did would have been in the Coast Guard’s own radio shack, some distance from Lum’s station at Government House. He writes, “I did not interfere with their duties and stayed out of the way.”
Henry Lau was now deceased, but Lum was able to put Riley in touch with Leong. He verified what Lum had claimed, and wrote the following:
Sept. 4, 1994
“No idea who wrote the false log. I stand no radio watch on Howland Island. Cipriani, Henry Lau and me were on the Coast Guard cutter Itasca when it left Howland Island looking for Earhart.”
By law, radio operators must sign their names when going on and off watch. However, Lum’s first name, Yau, is repeatedly misspelled ’Yat’. His comment is, “If I really wrote that log, how come I misspelled my own name?”
If, as it appears, the Howland log is a fraud, then what about the authenticity of the Itasca’s log? In order to check it, those entries in the Howland log referring to contacts with the Itasca were compared with the Itasca’s log entries. In nearly all cases where the Howland log indicates a contact with the Itasca, there is a corresponding entry in the Itasca’s log. So, if the Howland log is a forgery, then at least some of the entries in the Itasca’s log are forgeries.
Sixty years later, which are we to believe: the word of two old gentlemen who have no reason to bear false witness: — or our Government’s questionable records? I prefer to believe the two elderly gentlemen.
But, we must question, if the log is false why would our Government have engaged in such a surreptitious effort to make it appear that Earhart’s frequency was monitored with a direction finder on Howland for ten days after her disappearance? But if true, why classify it for 25 years? (End of Rafford’s comments. Rafford passed away in December 2016 at 97.)
Even more comprehensively than Rafford, Dave Horner, and author and former AES member who’s still with us, examines this complex situation and devotes his entire Chapter 6, “The Howland Direction Finder,” in his fine 2013 book, The Earhart Enigma (Pelican Publishing Co.), to a comprehensive look at the Howland Island direction finder, the personnel assigned to Howland Island and the serious questions the phony Howland Island radio log raised and continues to raise about Earhart’s final flight.
In his wide-ranging chapter, Horner expands on the information Rafford referenced in his AES Newsletters story from radio propagation expert John P. Riley Jr.’s 2000 story, “The Earhart Tragedy: Old Mystery, New Hypothesis,” which appeared in the August 2000 issue of Naval History Magazine (available by subscription only). Other sources Horner cites are 1994 and 1995 letters from Yau Fai Lum to John Riley, and Rafford himself. None of it puts Cmdr. Warner Thompson in a favorable light.
Horner begins this lengthy, complex chapter by stating that the “July 29 [actually July 19] 1937 report “Earhart Flight” [Radio transcripts, Earhart flight] by Cmdr. Warner K. Thompson, Itasca’s commanding officer “raised more questions than it answered.”
This is a huge understatement, and the confusing situation among personnel on Howland Island, as well as the capabilities of the direction finder placed there to assist in helping Earhart find a safe landing on Howland, doesn’t easily lend itself to a complete treatment here, given the limitations of this blog and its editor, who has never possessed or claimed any significant degree of technical acumen.
Unlike some, Horner held Rafford in some esteem, calling the former NASA specialist “always a gentleman,” and drew from his work throughout Chapter 6 of The Earhart Enigma.
“This whole affair of the Howland DF log didn’t get messy until Yau Fai Lum claimed years later that Cipriani did not remain on Howland but returned to the ship,” Horner wrote. “All of this surfaced in the early 1990s, when Lum told Earhart researcher and author Paul Rafford and John Riley, both contemporary radio experts, that he had never even met Cipriani.” Horner continued:
Rafford was stunned. “Never met Cipriani? According to the log of the Itasca you were on that flyspeck of an island for over two weeks with him. How could you possibly not have met him in all of that time?”
Lum responded directly and to the point. Cipriani was only on Howland Island the evening before and early morning of Earhart’s anticipated arrival.
. . . Rafford continued his questions of Lum: “There are daily direction finding reports written until the search was over. Your name is there, along with Cipriani’s. [Ah Kin] Leong, and [Henry] Lau. You all stood FD watches. Your name is right there in black and white! How can you deny this?”
Lum illustrated this disparity with one immeasurable comment: If I signed or typed the log, how could I misspell my own name? Yat instead of Yau [Italics Horner’s.] Our names as well as our call signs are typed, not signed by us. It is a counterfeit!”
Horner called the above “an almost unbelievable development. The Itasca report from Commander Thompson placed Ah Kin Leong and Henry Lau ashore on Howland Island in order to assist Cipriani staff the high-frequency DF. But Lum asserted, ‘That is a false report, full of –.’ ” Lum explained that neither he nor any of the radio operators on Howland were trained or capable of operating the high frequency direction finder — Cipriani was the only one there who was trained to operative the HF/DF.
All this should be disturbing to anyone who has put any faith in the official Itasca Radio Logs, Itasca Cruise Report or “Radio transcripts, Earhart flight,” all of which were produced by or under the auspices and responsibility of Cmdr. Thompson.
Big questions have never been answered, to wit: Who tampered with the Itasca and Howland Island logs, and why? Just as disturbingly, what other changes were made to the Itasca and Howland logs — what might have been added, subtracted or in any way made to misrepresent the truth about Earhart’s final flight and the hours immediately after her last message at 0843 Howland Island time?
See my March 31, 2015 post, “Amelia Earhart and the Morgenthau Connection: What did FDR’s treasury secretary really know?” as you further consider what really occurred in the final hours of the Earhart flight, as well as how and why these strange, irregular occurrences have affected the entire official face of the Earhart disappearance.
In a 1973 interview with crashed-and-sank author Elgen Long, former Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts said, “One or two things should never be published as long as anyone on the Itasca remains alive.” What could Bellarts have meant?
For anyone who’s interested in further studying the Howland Island direction finder and all that it entailed, I strongly recommend The Earhart Enigma, available in used, inexpensive copies on Amazon, as well as new.